The General Store closed 10 of its 13 jeans shops Sunday and reportedly plans to severely curtail its operations after a major sale starting later this week.
Employes of the Washington clothing chain said yesterday they were informed Sunday, without warning, that the stores will close.
Sidney Lewis, Jr., who founded The General Store in 1973 as a post-hippy boutique and built it into a multimillion-dollar-a-year operation, confirmed the closings, but declined to discuss his plans.
"I have no comment," said Lewis in a terse telephone interview. "As my daddy told me, I should learn to keep my mouth shut."
Lewis' father founded Best Products Co. of Richmond and built it into one of the most profitable catalog showroom chains in the nation.
The son was once expected to rival his father's retailing success, but for the last year The General Store has had trouble holding its own in the brutally competitive blue-jeans business.
After Lewis reportedly fell behind in paying his bills, some suppliers began insisting on cash in advance, a demand difficult even for prosperous stores to meet. Customers complained that The General Store no longer carried the broad selection of Levi's jeans at sharply discounted prices that had been its trademark.
Started as a single store on 18th Street in the then-unfashionable Adams-Morgan neighborhood, the General Store expanded to 13 outlets in less than four years.
By offering low-priced Levi's -- he once sold jeans that cost $10.50 a pair wholesale for $10.95 -- Lewis drew thousands of customers to deliberately dumpy stores in low-rent locations throughout metropolitan Washington.
The rapid expansion and aggressive price promotion set off a "jeans war" that other retailers say has made the Washington market one of the most competitive in the denim trade.
The General Store is the second major local jeans retailer to sharply curtail its operations in the last year, leaving Pants Corral, owned by Giant Food Inc., as the undisputed leader in sales of Levi's-brand jeans.
The Zippers chain, once a rival to The General Store and Pants Corral, was sold earlier this year and soon afterward jumped out of its jeans and into the sportswear business, where profit margins are larger and competition less fierce.
Yesterday only three of The General Store's 13 units appeared to be open for business -- the downtown flagship store at 810 7th St., NW., and the Shrilington and Langely Park stores. At the 10 other stores, either the phone was not answered or employes said the stores were not open.
Employes of one store said they were told last week their store would be closed Monday for inventory. But when they came to work Sunday, the employes were informed that the stores were closing for good.
"Everything is in total confusion. Nobody knows what's going on," said an employe at one location. "All we know is the store is closing. We don't know when. We don't know what will happen."
Most of The General Store's locations had 10 to 12 employes, but the downtown store was much larger, another worker said.
Managers of the stores were called to a meeting with Lewis scheduled for 8 a.m. today, one manager said.
Lewis, who once admitted he stumbled into the jeans business, reportedly had become restive recently about the difficulties of profitably operating such a large and complex venture.
Once a would-be economist intent on earning a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lewis went into business in 1972 running a head shop called The Bong Works and making bongs, a water pipe used for smoking marijuana.
He bought a used furniture store near 18th and Columbia Road, planning to unload the inventory and move in The Bong Works. Unable to unload the furniture, he turned the place into a general store, then concentrated on clothing when it turned out to be his best seller.
Keeping open the 18th Street store, Lewis moved downtown to 7th Street in late 1977, then opened a third store on Alabama Avenue SE, a year later and kept on expanding.
After liquidation sales starting this weekend, the Alabama Avenue and 18th Street stores are expected to close along with those in Falls Church, Alexandria, Woodbridge, Camp Springs, Landover, Laurel, Rockville and Oxon Hill.